Los Angeles Soccer: Nat Borchers
If last weekend's victory over Portland wasn't evidence enough that the Galaxy finally is turning their awful campaign into something promising, consider what Major League Soccer's reigning champions pulled off Wednesday night against Real Salt Lake.
Down by two goals after 24 minutes ... on the road ... at 4,550 feet ... against the best team in the league ... the Galaxy took advantage of two gifts, took charge, and walked away with a remarkable 3-2 triumph.
Landon Donovan scored two goals, the first after picking off an lazy, thoughtless back pass from Tony Beltran and the 68th-minute winner from Mike Magee's superb ball behind RSL's backline, and L.A. allowed its host only five shots on goal to improve to 5-8-2 and climb within two points of fifth place, the cutoff for playoff berths.
Before Sunday, the Galaxy had spent a month in the Western Conference cellar. With a win Saturday over Vancouver at Home Depot Center, they could be back in contention.
The Galaxy let a late two-goal lead slip away in a 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake in their Major League Soccer opener three months ago, the first big stumble in their horrid start to 2012.
L.A. got payback Wednesday night, rallying from a two-goal first-half deficit for a 3-2 victory in Sandy, Utah, notching back-to-back victories for the first time in a month and just the second time all year.
It's just the second Galaxy win in 10 Utah meetings and their first at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Landon Donovan ran onto a brilliant ball from Mike Magee and finished into an open net in the 68th minute to deliver all three points to the Galaxy (5-8-2), who ended a seven-game MLS winless streak with a win Sunday over Portland.
“That's a good win, man,” Donovan said on KDOC's telecast. “We felt a little unjust by what happened at our place a little earlier in the year when they won, and we wanted to get a little revenge. And then we also know if we can manage to get into the playoffs, which we're still pushing for, this might be a place we have to come later, so we wanted to put on a good show.”
Real Salt Lake (10-4-2) remains atop the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield standings. The Galaxy climbed from seventh to sixth place, but will drop back if Chivas USA draws or beats Montreal in a late game Wednesday. That game is tied, 1-1, at halftime.
This Galaxy victory wasn't as simple as Sunday's: Uncharacteristic errors by RSL's backline let L.A. back into the game after falling behind, 2-0, by the 24th minute, and it was on the back foot mostly until Magee netted the equalizer five minutes into the second half.
Defensive breakdowns cost the Galaxy, which went behind in the ninth minute when Kyle Beckerman finished a low cross from Fabian Espindola, who also fed Alvaro Saborio for the second goal in the 24th.
CARSON -- He was Major League Soccer's Rookie of the Year in 2009, a Best XI selection last year, and now he's MLS's Defender of the Year.
What more does Omar Gonzalez need to do to make the U.S. national team?
That question was posed to the Galaxy's 6-foot-5 Texan just a few minutes after word came down that he'd won the league's top defensive honor, and Gonzalez, who has made it clear he wants to play for Jurgen Klinsmann, didn't flinch.
“I have no idea,” he said. “I haven't talked to the coaches at all. I'm just worried about winning this MLS Cup and worrying about getting better. I think if I worry about the right things, good things will come. I just have to keep on getting better, and, hopefully, they will notice.”
MLS's best-defender honor, richly reserved, is a good thing, “another step in his development,” in coach Bruce Arena's words, and reward for everyone else whose contributions gave L.A. the league's best record, with fewest goals conceded and 17 shutouts, tying the MLS regular-season mark.
“He deserves it. He's been our rock this year,” said veteran center back/assistant coach Gregg Berhalter, Gonzalez's primary mentor in his first three years as a pro. “Add to it the offensive quality, in scoring the goals, and his dominance in the air and his presence and the type of year he's had. I'm really proud of him. He's come a long way.
“And not only that, his consistency has been there this year. That's the one thing that's improved from last year. He's been steady the whole year. ... We're excited for him, we're extremely proud of him, and it's a great honor for all of us that he won.”
Gonzalez, who will lead the Galaxy backline in the Nov. 20 MLS Cup final against Houston at Home Depot Center, outpointed fellow finalists Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, both from Real Salt Lake. The same trio was up for the award last year, and Olave won it.
“I was pretty pumped about it,” he said. “This is a huge award, and it's a great accolade for me personally, to be in my third year here in this league. ... I put a lot of hard work into going into this year, and the hard work paid off, and I'm just really excited and happy that I won this.”
Gonzalez, a first-round draft pick in 2009 out of Maryland, made an impact from his first day in the league, with his size and earnestness, but under Berhalter's and the Galaxy staff's tutelage he has evolved into a multilayered defender whose physical tools have been amplified by a growing facility with the ball -- he and Berhalter worked together on technical areas during the offseason -- and a broader understanding of the game and its tactics.
PKs are mostly mental, and after he missed two in a row against Real Salt Lake's Nick Rimando -- one of them in the shootout to decide the 2009 MLS Cup title game -- there was an assumption the former UCLA goalkeeper had gotten inside his head.
If so, Donovan managed to push him out as he converted a 23rd-minute penalty to give the Galaxy their first lead in Sunday night's 3-1 victory in the Western Conference final at Home Depot Center.
“I've been fortunate and not missed a ton of penalties in MLS, but two of them that I've missed came against Nick,” he said afterward. “I was fully aware of that. I just let my instincts take over.”
Rimando went right, and Donovan fired the other way, sharply at mid-height. Nothing but net.
“When I got to the ball, I actually was going to hit it the way he went. And at the last second, I trusted my gut, and the ball went in.”
The goal extended Donovan's MLS postseason record for goals to 19 in 28 playoff games.
BEST-LAID PLANS: How crucial was Real Salt Lake's center-back injury problem to Sunday's result? Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, again, joined the Galaxy's Omar Gonzalez as an MLS Defender of the Year finalist Monday. Olave won among the same trio last year, and Gonzalez is most deserving in 2011.
Olave gave a warrior's performance for RSL, and if the Colombian giant wasn't close to 100 percent, his effort certainly was.
“I think it says a lot about Jamison Olave that he's going to play through a situation where they told me there was no chance that he was going to be able to play and he might not have been able to play in the final if we had made it there,” RSL coach Jason Kreis said. “On a week to have the turnaround that he did, and the willingness to say 'I'll play, I wanna play' -- that says a lot about Jamison Olave. I thought he was very strong tonight, and he ran out of gas just as we thought he would. I think he made it a lot further than I thought he would.”
The Galaxy midfielder, the club's best hope for the MVP award, is a finalist for Comeback Player of the Year. D.C. United's Charlie Davies and Chicago's Dominic Oduro are the other finalists. Davies, who returned from a deadly car crash that ended his 2010 World Cup hopes to restart his career in MLS, is heavily favored.
The three MVP possibilities are Houston's Brad Davis, D.C. United's Dwayne De Rosario and FC Dallas' Brek Shea. Beckham mentioned after L.A.'s Western Conference final victory Sunday night over Real Salt Lake that Davis has won the honor, although no confirmation will be coming from the league, at least not until Nov. 18.
Omar Gonzalez is up for Defender of the Year, along with Real Salt Lake's Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers -- Olave won among the same trio last year -- and Bruce Arena joins Seattle's Sigi Schmid (Torrance/Bishop Montgomery HS and UCLA) and Sporting Kansas City's Peter Vermes among Coach of the Year finalists.
Chivas USA is a finalist for the Team Fair Play honor, UCLA product Kevin Hartman (Palos Verdes/Peninsula HS) is up for Goalkeeper of the Year, and former Cal State Fullerton midfielder Michael Farfan (Wildomar) is a Rookie of the Year finalist. The best-referee trio includes Chino's Kevin Stott.
The top-rookie award, expected to go to K.C. forward C.J. Sapong, will be announced Tuesday, along with the Fair Play awards. Defender of the Year is due Wednesday, with announcements following for the Best XI (Thursday). Other awards will be coming next week.
CARSON, Calif. -- Bruce Arena credited the luck of the Irish. David Beckham cited something Mike Magee's father told him. Landon Donovan noted that L.A.'s aim was to put as much pressure on Real Salt Lake's center backs as it possibly could.
Add it all up, throw in a few more things -- Robbie Keane's tremendous movement and Josh Saunders' superb reactions -- and the Galaxy is headed to the MLS Cup, just like Tim Leiweke promised when he teased season-ticket holders nine months ago, before the league had said a thing, that Major League Soccer's championship game was coming to the Home Depot Center.
This will be the fifth time MLS' showcase game is played on the Galaxy's home field and the first time the Galaxy will be taking part.
“Let me tell you,” Arena said after L.A.'s 3-1 triumph over RSL in Sunday night's Western Conference final at Home Depot Center, “it wasn't the most comfortable feeling knowing that we were going to be the hosting the final and going through the season [with that over our heads]. ... I must tell you, there was a little pressure to get there.”
They did so by switching things up. Rather than battling RSL for midfield dominance, seeing who could possess and making the other team chase, the Galaxy relied on a direct attack meant to test ailing center back Jamison Olave, who got the nod after faring well enough in a pregame fitness test for RSL, and his youthful partner, Chris Schuler.
It led to a flurry of chances, one leading to Donovan's first-half penalty kick, and then second-half goals by Magee and Keane as L.A. pulled away to set up a Nov. 20 meeting with then Houston Dynamo at HDC.
Magee's 58th-minute header, his third finish from a Beckham ball in as many postseason games, broke a 1-1 draw, and Keane's strike in the 68th, after a long sprint against Olave, secured L.A.'s seventh MLS Cup appearance and second in three full seasons under Arena.
“It's maybe the luck of the Irish,” Arena said afterward. “I would assume Magee's Irish, right? I don't even know.”
Yes, he is, on both sides, and he acknowledged he used to throw a faux Irish accent around the locker room before Keane, a real Irishman, arrived in August.
“I was just walking around like I was the Irish guy on the team,” Magee said, “but he saw right through me.”
Olave, last year's MLS Defender of the Year, was considered the longer shot to start between RSL's first-choice center backs, who sustained quadriceps injuries in the Lions' playoff opener and missed Wednesday's decisive first-round leg in Seattle.
Both were on the HDC field testing their limits at about 4:30 p.m., and Olave -- a physical difference-maker in the back -- fared well enough to join Chris Schuler in the middle. Chris Wingert returns to his normal spot, at left back.
No surprises in the Galaxy XI. Here are the lineups:
Galaxy: Josh Saunders; Sean Franklin, Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza, Todd Dunivant; Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Juninho, Mike Magee; Chad Barrett, Robbie Keane. Bench: Chris Birchall, Paolo Cardozo, Adam Cristman, Frankie Hejduk, Donovan Ricketts, Dasan Robinson, Michael Stephens.
Real Salt Lake: Nick Rimando; Robbie Russell, Jamison Olave, Chris Schuler, Chris Wingert; Andy Williams, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Will Johnson; Fabian Espindola, Alvaro Saborio. Bench: Yordany Alvarez, Tony Beltran, Nat Borchers, Luis Gil, Ned Grabavoy, Paulo Jr., Kyle Reynish.
With the Galaxy in the MLS playoffs, we'll try to answer some of the pertinent questions as the postseason moves on.
The Galaxy needs one more win to advance to a record seventh MLS Cup final, and it isn't going to come easy, no matter what the situation is with Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave.
They take on Real Salt Lake in Sunday evening's Western Conference final at Home Depot Center, a rematch of the 2009 MLS Cup title game the Utahns won on penalties. It's a showdown between Major League Soccer's best team (the Galaxy, winner of successive Supporters' Shields as regular-season champ) and the side that at season's start was playing the most stylish and effective soccer the league has ever seen (RSL, until a crushing loss and major injury sent it spiraling).
What's going to decide this one? What are the keys?
Here are three:
1. Possession is paramount: Both of these teams prefer to hold onto the ball, move it around, force their opponents to grow weary chasing the play, and which ever is more successful at it is going to dictate the terms.
The Galaxy saw that in the first meeting, a 4-1 RSL romp over a side that was missing Landon Donovan. The Lions repeatedly put together double-digit strings of passes, carving up the L.A. backline in a performance that deserved eight, maybe 10 goals.
With Javier Morales back from a devastating ankle injury and Kyle Beckerman setting a foundation in front of the back four, RSL's midfield is a tricky proposition.
“They're really unpredictable,” Galaxy left back Todd Dunivant said. “It's hard to get one-on-one matchups with them because they're moving all over the place, so it's hard to really find where their guys are. That makes it difficult on defenses, and when you get defenses second-guessing themselves and their decisions, you're going to put people in bad positions and punish them, and that's what Salt Lake does well.”
CARSON -- The situation couldn't be more perfect for the Galaxy heading into Sunday's Western Conference title game.
They're at home (where they haven't lost all season), are as near to full strength as they've been at any point (Juninho's return from suspension a big plus), and can happily feast on a Real Salt Lake defense that might still be missing its anchors.
Scratch that last one.
Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave, the best center-back tandem in MLS, could be watching from the stands, but the Galaxy (21-5-10, including playoffs) won't get much joy from that, no matter how massively that alters the odds.
This is a proud bunch, believes they are the best team in MLS and knows the best way to prove that is to beat the best. And RSL isn't at its best if Borchers and Olave aren't a go.
As noted by Omar Gonzalez, the Galaxy's top center back: “I hope they are on the field, so we can have the best game possible.”
The team that best maintains possession and more aggressively conquers midfield is going to have the edge in the clash at Home Depot Center, but the task is considerably more difficult for Real Salt Lake (16-12-8) without the physical, dynamic Olave, a 30-year-old Colombian, and cerebral organizer Borchers, also 30, from Colorado.
“I've been reading stats all year that they write up every time one of them isn't in the game,” said Gonzalez, who joined the RSL pair on last year's MLS Best XI backline. “They give up almost no goals when they're both on the field, but when they're off the field, they seem to struggle a little bit.”
It's true. Since its 2009 MLS Cup triumph over the Galaxy, Real Salt Lake is 40-21-27 with Borchers and Olave in the middle and 11-14-6 using any other combination. The records this season: 10-4-8 and 6-8-0.
“Those two are arguably the best center-back pairing in the league,” Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said. “If one of them is out, it hurts them. If both of them are out, it certainly hurts them. [But RSL is] experienced, their midfield does a good job of getting around the ball, which relieves some of the pressure on their backline, and then they have a great goalkeeper [Montclair's Nick Rimando], too. Even if one of both of those two aren't on the field, it's still going to be a big challenge.”
Borchers and Olave exited with quadricep strains in the Lions' 3-0 rout in their first-round, first-leg victory over Seattle, and the difference was alarming in Wednesday's second leg, a 2-0 loss. Towering sophomore Chris Schuler and veteran left back Chris Wingert partnered inside and took the brunt of a very direct Sounders attack. Their teammates applauded them for their bravery under constant pressure, but RSL coach Jason Kreis wasn't satisfied.
The biggest question about Sunday's Western Conference final concerns the statuses of Real Salt Lake's Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, two of Major League Soccer's finest center backs.
Both departed the Utahns' playoff opener last weekend against Seattle with quadriceps injuries and sat out Wednesday's second leg, a 2-0 defeat that sent RSL through to meet the Galaxy on Sunday evening at Home Depot Center.
Reserve Chris Schuler and left back Chris Wingert stepped into their shoes and fared reasonably well in Wednesday's defeat, which wasn't enough to overturn RSL's 3-0 lead from the first leg, but they're not Olave and Borchers and never will be.
RSL technical director/general manager Garth Lagerwey said Friday afternoon on a media conference call that he wasn't sure if Olave and Borchers would be ready to go by 6 p.m. Sunday.
“We just don't know,” he said. “There's muscle stuff, and obviously we elected to hold them off Wednesday. They'll be on the flight tonight to L.A., the team doctor is going with us to provide around-the-clock care ... it's going to be a close decision on game day.”
Olave was MLS's Defender of the Year last year, when the smart vote went to Borchers, who was a finalist -- along with Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez. All three are among contenders for the award again this season.
Lagerwey was pleased with Schuler, a second-year defender out of Creighton, and Wingert, an eighth-round veteran who last played in the middle during his college days at St. John's.
“You're not going to come under more pressure than we did in Seattle,” Lagerwey said. “It was a baptism by fire, and we're going to be hit any harder. Those guys won dozens of battles all night long.”
Osvaldo Alonso converted a penalty kick and Lamar Neagle finished from Fredy Montero's pass five minutes later as the Sounders posted a 2-0 victory in the second leg, not quite enough after RSL romped, 3-0, in its home leg of the two-games, total-goals series Saturday night.
The result knocks out MLS's second-best team this season and ends retiring goalkeeping legend Kasey Keller's career while potentially setting up a rematch of the 2009 MLS Cup final in Sunday's Western Conference final. The Galaxy take a 1-0 advantage into the second leg of their first-round series and will be home Sunday with a draw or better Thursday night against New York.
A one-goal Galaxy loss would force overtime and, to follow, penalty kicks, and New York will head to Sandy, Utah -- a rematch of the 2008 Western Conference final -- with a two-goal victory Thursday at HDC.
Real Salt Lake beat the Galaxy on penalties in the 2009 MLS Cup title game. New York beat RSL in 2008 en route to a MLS Cup loss to Columbus at HDC.
Defending champion Colorado also was eliminated, dropping a 2-0 decision at Eastern Conference regular-season champion Sporting Kansas City, which prevailed, 4-0, on aggregate.
Alvaro Saborio scored twice and Real Salt Lake came out winners in their Major League Soccer playoff opener Saturday, routing visiting Seattle, 3-0, in the first leg of the most widely anticipated first-round series.
Saborio finished a Chris Wingert feed in the 41st minute, on a play in which he appeared offside, then scored a glorious second goal in the 53rd, backheeling into the net Javier Morales' ball to the near post despite blanket coverage by Sounders defender Jeff Parke.
Ned Grabavoy added the third in the 88th.
Real Salt Lake finished third in MLS's overall standings, and Seattle was second. The winner of the the home-and-home, total-goals series will meet the Galaxy or New York in the Nov. 6 Western Conference final.
Both of Real Salt Lake's central defenders -- Jamison Olave (quad strain) and Nat Borchers (knee strain) -- departed with injuries, and their statuses for Wednesday's second leg in Seattle are uncertain.
The Sounders should be facing more of a handicap than just a three-goal deficit. Osvaldo Alonso should have been red-carded for shoving Saborio in the face away from the ball in the 54th minute, but referee Mark Geiger pulled out the yellow card. The league could assess a suspension for the second leg.
CARSON -- The Galaxy has played some beautiful soccer at times this year, but what makes them the best side in Major League Soccer is their ability to win ugly.
A 2-1 triumph Saturday night over Real Salt Lake fits in nicely. The Galaxy played well -- its defensive pressure all over the field was superb -- but needed two gritty goals to move within one victory from clinching its second straight Supporters' Shield.
Chad Barrett scored on a superb individual effort in the 59th minute and a Todd Dunivant ball through the goalmouth led to Nat Borchers' own goal in the 72nd as L.A. rallied from a halftime deficit for the first time this season in front a sellout crowd of 27,000 at Home Depot Center.
“They're not going to be in anybody's highlight films this week, but two balls that went over the line,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said. “They all count.”
That's how it's been for L.A. (18-3-10) the past week. Barrett volleyed home a rebound in stoppage to win at Columbus last week, and Juninho followed with a stoppage-time strike from a corner kick to claim Wednesday's must-win CONCACAF Champions League clash against Morelia.
RSL (15-10-6), which has lost three in a row, was eliminated from contention for the Supporters' Shield, which goes to the team with the best regular-season record. L.A. would have clinched it had Seattle (16-6-9) failed to win in New England, a 2-1 Sounders triumph. On to New York, where the Galaxy plays Tuesday night, and where a win will settle it.
“It would've been nice to do it today,” said Galaxy captain Landon Donovan. “If we win in New York, we're there. I think two points is the magic number either way. We need to tie two games or win a game or hope Seattle drops points. We're close but not there yet.”
L.A. is close on other fronts, too. A win Oct. 20 at Motagua sends it to next year's knockout stage in the Champions League, one of the club's primary goals. Then there's the Shield. And then?
“Our eyes are kind of focused on the postseason,” Dunivant said. “We want to close out this Supporters' Shield and advance in CONCACAF, and after that we know that the big prize and the way you make your living in this league is in the playoffs.”
The result gives the Galaxy 64 points, matching the post-shootout era record set by San Jose in 2005 and just four off the Galaxy club record set in 1998, when the old tiebreaker was still in effect. That team would have finished with 70 points under current rules.
A quick look at the Galaxy's victory:
BEST PLAYER: Both playmakers were influential, and both deserve praise. Beckham made a case for his MVP candidacy with superb balls into RSL's box from start to finish -- pity his teammates rarely got on the end of them. But when they did, good things happened. Barrett's goal came from a beautiful long ball into the box, and the own goal followed a free kick that Donovan flicked on to Dunivant at the far post.
Chivas USA failed at the finish Saturday, and no shame in that. They had held mighty Real Salt Lake scoreless on the road into the 87th minute despite playing most of the game with only nine men.
Red cards, both deserved, defined Robin Fraser's Salt Lake City homecoming, with Chivas' impressive defensive display shuttled on Will Johnson's finish with five minutes to go, stoppage included.
The Goats (2-3-2) looked good before losing center back Andy Boyens to a second yellow card after just 25 minutes and Marcos Mondaini to a straight red in the 38th for a gruesome foul that cost Major League Soccer its third major star in little more than two weeks.
Real Salt Lake playmaker Javier Morales suffered what the club's doctor called a “fracture dislocation of his left ankle and accompanying ligament tears,” will require surgery and be out an expected four months. He follows to the sidelines Seattle's Steve Zakuani, out for the year because of a broken leg, and FC Dallas' David Ferreira, done for three months because of a fractured ankle.
This one wasn't nearly as ugly as Colorado midfielder Brian Mullan's attack on Zakuani, which drew a 10-game ban, but it was as difficult to watch -- and, like Zakuani's injury, was televised on a national network. (Spanish-language TeleFutura, which regaled/sickened viewers with repeated replays.)
Morales, MLS's premier attacking midfielder, was dribbling right to left above the Chivas USA box with his Argentine countryman Mondaini in pursuit but getting nowhere near position to knock the ball away. Finally, Mondaini swept Morales from behind, folding the RSL star's left leg underneath as they fell forward. Morales' foot bent sideways as he wailed in torment.
Referee Paul Ward initially gave Mondaini a yellow card -- ridiculous; the challenge was from behind, and that's a red card -- switching colors only after seeing the extent of Morales' injury. The expulsion is accompanied by a one-game suspension, but MLS's disciplinary committee can, and likely will, add a few games to the total. The league wants to appear strong on these kinds of tackles, and it has set a standard with Mullan's penalty.
Not even RSL thinks the fouls compare.
“To be honest, I didn’t think it was the most flagrant of fouls,” coach Jason Kreis told media afterward. “It was from behind, which we’re trying to get out of the game. It’s in the attacking third, and Javi was clearly getting ready to shoot. I understand the urgency of the situation from the defender trying to make the play, and I really don’t think it was that egregious.”
The league boosted its playoff participants to 10 teams with the addition of two single-game wild-card showdowns, which should be welcomed by Chivas and Columbus, Chicago and D.C., K.C. and New England, even Toronto FC.
The Galaxy and the like? Are you kidding?
Here's how the postseason works this year:
This system will cut down on all that confusing cross-conference movement in the playoffs, which led to an all-West showdown in last year's Eastern Conference final, an Eastern Conference title (en route to MLS Cup glory) by Real Salt Lake in 2009, and a Western championship by New York in 2008.
Had this system been in place last year, K.C. would have been the No. 3 seed in the East and opened against Columbus, which the then-Wizards might have won. Which would have left them 90 minutes from MLS Cup.
One wild-card battle would have matched Colorado against San Jose. ... Hey, they did play -- in the Eastern Conference final. The Rapids prevailed, then won the MLS Cup crown. (The other wild-card matchup would have been Seattle-Chicago; the Galaxy likely would have opened against Colorado.)
MLS has had eight playoff teams since its 1996 start, when there were only 10 clubs. As the league slowly grew to 16 teams by 2010, eight playoff berths seemed sufficient. Portland and Vancouver make for 18 teams this season and Montreal for 19 next year, and eight still sounds perfect.
L.A. would have reached the 2006 playoffs had this format been in place, but nothing could have saved the Galaxy in 2007 and 2008. And forget Chivas last year or in 2005.